Language determines how we think. Or was it the other way around? Hmmm, probably both? You know, like the snake eating its tail and the other snake, which is the same snake, escaping from the snake eating its tail…SsssSSssSsSss (very cool typed snake sound, right?).
Anyway, learning a second (third, fourth, fifth, etc.) language expands (and compounds) your mind in ways you never could have even conceptualized before learning it. But I’m here to “throw some data at you” (which is how we would say “drop some wisdom on you” in Argentine slang), so you can stretch that noggin a bit without having to do all the heavy lifting of learning the whole language yourself.
If you didn’t catch the first installment of this series on Argentine slang, where I talked about flashear, click here to check it out now. Also, I wanted to include a quick disclaimer: all of the explanations and analyses that I offer here are based on my own experiences with Argentine slang, from conversations and interactions I have had with the people in my life, and they represent my understanding of the language. I am not referencing any other sources, I am not the RAE (I’m actually the arch-nemesis of the RAE), nor am I the arbiter of Argentine or any other slang. I am just your friendly neighborhood translator, slang enthusiast, and speaker-to-and-listener-of-people-who-talk, with a passion for putting the quirks of contemporary language into words. That being said, I’ve got a big, important question for you all:
Ah, yes. Possibly the most asked question in Argentina. (Right up there alongside “¿todo bien?” and “¿consumidor final?”)
So, what does it mean? We don’t have an equivalent expression in English. Equivalent expression meaning one that would be a proper translation for all the ways qué onda is used, not just one or a few. But we have a whole slew of expressions that could work, because qué onda encompasses a wide range of meanings. Depending on the context, we might say one of the following:
What’s up? What’s going on? How are you? What happened? What’s wrong? What did they say? What’s your deal? What the hell? What was that all about? Why are you acting like that? How did it go? How is it? What do you think of it? What’s your problem? How’s that working out for you?
All of these questions fall within the meaning of qué onda.
Aside from context, the tone and inflection help denote the intention of the expression, and will vary depending on how it’s being used. If someone cuts in front of you in line, and you say “qué onda?!” that’s going to sound different, inflection-wise, than if you say “qué onda?!” upon being reunited with a close friend you haven’t seen in a while. And consequently, if someone comments “qué onda?” on your Facebook status, you will be left entirely unsure of how they intended it, and you might even worry that they were somehow offended by your post.
You can extend and clarify the question by adding a noun with an article, or a pronoun or proper noun without an article. For example, someone could ask “qué onda La La Lista?” and you might respond by explaining, “La La Lista is an online arts and culture magazine devoted primarily to the coverage of local music in Buenos Aires, with a soft spot for good food and great art. It is a guiding principle of the publication to highlight projects by female and non-binary creators as much as possible. Every article is provided by a loose collection of yanquis, colombianxs, argentinxs, and others for whom Buenos Aires is home.” You could functionally translate that question as “What is La La Lista?” but in reality, the question is asking more than just what it is, but also, what it’s about, who is involved, what’s the angle, what’s the purpose, what’s the vibe. (Hence the response was a whole explanation, not just “it’s a magazine.”) So a more accurate translation for the question in this context might be, “What’s La La Lista all about?” or even “So what’s La La Lista’s deal?”
Someone could ask, for example, “qué onda tu familia (your family)?” which, depending on the context of the conversation, could be asking about the current situation of your family (How’s your family doing?) or asking about the make-up or dynamic of your family (What’s your family like?) or referring back to whatever aspect of family was being talked about prior in the conversation; for example, if you were conversing about families going through divorce and someone asks “qué onda tu familia?” they are probably wanting to know about experiences with divorce in your family, if your parents are still together, etc. (How about your family?). Or someone could ask, “qué onda vos y Juan?” which could mean “How are things going with Juan?” or “What’s going on between you and Juan?” or maybe even, with a certain inflection, “Are you and Juan dating?”
Because the question often has a range of possible interpretations, it’s not uncommon in conversations for it to be followed up by or responded to with another question, for clarification and specification, before an answer is given.
What is an onda?
But that’s enough about “qué onda?” Let’s move on. No actually, let’s backtrack. What is an onda, anyway?
Most literally, an onda is a wave. Not a wave like in the ocean, a heat wave, or a wave of immigration or feminism or ska (That’s an ola. Although I understand ola as being a subset of onda.); not a wave like when you wave hello to someone (that kind of wave actually doesn’t have an equivalent in Spanish), but a wave like of an electromagnetic or sonic (etc.) frequency, or hair. It’s a vibration; an energy; a texture; “a disturbance that travels through space-time, accompanied by a transfer of energy” (this I copied from a Wikipedia article on “wave”).
Keeping that in mind, let’s move on to some other expressions that use the word “onda.”
Just like the good flashes and bad flashes I talked about in the previous article about Argentine slang, we also have good and bad onda. The most basic English-mind understanding of these phrases is that they are akin to the expressions “bad vibes” or “good vibes” in English. And while that’s true, those aren’t accurate translations for every context. For example, in English, if we say about someone, “she’s bad vibes,” that means there’s something about her that’s off-putting. It could be that she’s a downer, negative nancy, or that she’s rude, or otherwise a bearer of bad luck, drama, or trouble. To convey this in Argentinian Spanish, you would say “tiene una (she has a) mala onda.” But if you say “es (she’s) mala onda,” that’s a bit different, a bit more specific; it means she treats people badly; she’s mean. And a fun fact about the word “mean” is that it doesn’t quite exist in Spanish. Mala onda, used as an adjective to describe a person, is, in my opinion, the most similar expression meaning-wise (but a translator has to take into account much more than just the meaning of words), although the commonly used non-slang translation for mean is malo (bad). I’ve asked around, and I’ve found that many of my Argentinian friends, even some who have quite advanced English skills, aren’t very clear on what exactly “mean” means. (And the fact that it’s a homonym to the unrelated verb “to mean” certainly doesn’t help.) “It’s the opposite of nice,” I explain. “Bad?” they say. “No, no, bad is the opposite of good, not nice.” And any native English speaker will tell you: nice is different than good.
You can tirar (throw) mala onda at someone, and that would be similar to throwing shade, but you don’t typically “throw” buena onda at people unless its just a front to cover up ulterior mala onda. (You can also throw plain, unmodified onda; I’ll get to that next.) A place, event, organization, work of art, or group of people can be “buena onda” or “mala onda.” You can say “buena onda” in response to someone telling you about an experience they had, and that would be like responding “that’s awesome,” “hell yeah,” or “word” in English, or you can respond “mala onda” and that would be like saying “damn” or “that sucks.” You can have good onda with someone, which means you get along, have rapport, a history of positive interaction, or bad onda with someone, which is the opposite.
Another thing to remember about buena onda and mala onda, is that the meaning changes depending on if you use it with ser or estar. If you’ve ever studied Spanish, you are probably familiar with the fact that it has two different words (and thereby two different conceptualizations) for what English speakers understand as the verb “to be.” The quick and dirty explanation of those verbs is that estar is used for more impermanent states of being, like the am in “I am hungry,” (once I eat, I stop being hungry) and ser is used for more permanent characteristics, like the am in “I am Emilyann” (I never stop being Emilyann). So if you say “Estoy (I am) mala onda,” you mean you’re feeling irritable, antisocial, or otherwise in a bad mood. And if you say “Soy (I am) mala onda,” you mean you’re a mean person, a bummer, or otherwise an asshole.
Tirar onda + Pegar onda
Tirar (to throw) onda at someone is a pretty straight-forward concept for English speakers; it means to “hit on” or to “come on to” someone. In real life, or by sliding in the DMs (Fun fact: I have heard and used the anglicism “slidear en los DMs” here as well.) Pegar (to hit, or to stick) onda is also pretty straight-forward; it means to “hit it off” with someone; you feel an immediate connection and good chemistry with another person (or group of people). It can be used for casual, friendly, professional, or romantic interactions.
Si hay o no hay (whether or not there’s) onda
The first realm of use that comes to mind with this expression, for me, is dating, specifically dating through apps (Tinder and OkCupid are popular ones here), where you’re usually going on a date with someone you’ll be meeting for the first time. You put on something cute and head out to the bus stop, fingers crossed, anxiously hoping that there will be onda. And then, if there’s not — we all know what that looks like: the conversation flounders, they don’t laugh at your jokes, they don’t get any of your references, then you spend an hour or two being polite, feeling uncomfortable, and wishing the date would end. They might be a perfectly pleasant, attractive person, but there’s just not onda. And as they say: “si no hay onda, no hay onda” (if there isn’t onda, there isn’t onda).
And if there is onda, well, that’s a different story, and the night will surely end well for the both of you. But the worst is when the other person tries to make a move when there’s not even onda! Why would you think I want to kiss you or go home with you when there’s not even onda?
This expression isn’t exclusively used for talking about dating — it could be used for any type of interaction between people meeting each other — but a large portion of the time, when I hear people talking about if there is or isn’t onda, they’re talking about a Tinder date.
Tener o no tener (to have or not to have) onda
Just like between two or more people there can either be or not be onda, a person can either have or not have onda. If you have onda, it means you’re cool; you’ve got style. Typically in a sense that you have something special about you that’s innovative, creative, and unique to you, that makes you stand out and makes you attractive to other people. Not “cool” in the sense of that you fit a certain stereotype of what is “cool.” Someone who has a lot of onda is interesting, intriguing, probably a trend setter, and fun to be around. I also have heard the adjective “ondera” used to describe a person who has a lot of onda.
Onda like “vibe”
Earlier I talked about good and bad onda, which are the big ones, and have a lot of different applications, but I didn’t mention that aside from bad and good, there are an infinite number of other types of ondas that a person/place/thing can be or have. You can use any adjective (or descriptive clause/sentence) with onda to describe the vibe it gives you — how it makes you feel, what it reminds you of, what category it falls into. For example, “That place gave me a weird onda.” or “I’m very party onda right now.” or “It was an onda like when you go visit your grandma on the farm in the summer” or “That onda like when you show up early and you and only one other person are there and it’s awkward” This usage is pretty much equivalent to “vibe” in English.
Onda for describing the “type” of something
Onda can also be used the same way we often use “tipo (type)” in Argentinian Spanish: to describe what subcategory of a larger category something fits in. For example, in the wood stove in my house we have to use a specific type of wood called quebracho, so someone might say, “you have to use madera tipo quebracho (literally: wood type quebracho),” and a more slang-inclined person might say “you have to use madera onda quebracho,” which would mean the same thing. You might say “She makes music onda hard rock” to express what type of music she makes, or “They serve food onda healthy, vegan, locally sourced,” to describe what type of food a restaurant serves. It can be used this way followed by nouns, adjectives, adverbs, or even interjections or onomatopoeias (like earlier when I started typing as a snake, onda SssSSsssSss). For example, “I was so pissed when I found out my male coworker was making more money than me, onda FUCK, can you believe this shit is still happening in 2020?!!” (Here the interjection “fuck” and the following exclamation describe the type of way in which she is pissed.)
Onda like “nota”
This is one I hear used most commonly relating to drugs, by someone looking to get ahold of something. It’s used interchangeably with how we use “nota” in this same context. It’s like to have word of something, to have a connect, a hookup or contact. “Tenés onda/nota de pepa (Literally: do you have onda of acid)?” would be like saying “Do you know where I can score some acid?” or “Do you have a hookup to buy acid?” This usage isn’t necessarily exclusive to drug culture, though — you could also say something like “Do you have onda of apartments for rent in Palermo?”
To offer someone a service de onda means to do it free of charge, because you want to help out or do a favor for someone because you’re a cool, generous person, and/or you enjoy doing it or get some other sort of non-material reward from doing it. For example, I and all of the other writers at La La Lista, write for the magazine de onda because we believe in the project, take pride in being a part of the team, love participating in the local arts culture, and writing about our beloved city.
It can also be used in another similar, but broader sense, as in to offer some sort of help, tipoff, or advice for avoiding a problem, without expecting anything in return, and without intent to offend. For example, if you are having a loud party in your apartment and your neighbor comes over to ask nicely that you turn the music down, instead of calling the cops, they did that de onda.
Well, folks, that’s all I’ve got for this edition of Argentine Slang to Expand the Mind. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey through various applications of onda. If you enjoyed reading this, make sure you check out the first installment, and stay tuned for the next one — hint: it’s going to be stinky.